by Lorraine B. Elder and Larry MacPhee, Associate Directors
[UPDATE: This post was originally written in 2012, but the information still applies to our job openings whenever they occur.]
We have a job opening. This blog post offers tips about the RIGHT way to apply for a job with the e-Learning Center at Northern Arizona University (NAU) or, really, almost anywhere.
If you don’t meet the minimum qualifications, don’t bother applying
Whenever we have a job opening we get dozens of applications. Usually more than half of them don’t merit a second glance. Why? We mean it when we state the minimum qualifications for the job. If you don’t meet ‘em, don’t apply. We know—you’re thinking it’s like the lottery. Can’t win if you don’t play, right? The part of the job description that trips up unqualified applicants is that line about “combination of experience, training, and/or education.” If you’ve got to sell us on that, your equivalent education or experience can’t be much of a stretch, and it needs to meet NAU’s definition of equivalency. If you don’t meet the minimum qualifications, we can’t legally hire you, so don’t waste your time or ours.
Photo by My Melting Brain on Flickr
The matrix isn’t just a movie
Our employment searches are a committee affair. The committee chair—usually the hiring manager—creates a matrix (an Excel spreadsheet) listing the job qualifications based on the posted job description. Some qualifications are weighted more than others, and if you are truly a qualified candidate, you’ll probably be able to figure out which ones. Be sure to address those in your cover letter and resume.
The search committee members score your application against the matrix, and the highest scoring applicants get considered for an interview. The first item we score applications on is whether you meet the minimum qualifications. If you don’t, your application immediately goes onto the reject pile.
Your cover letter
A cover letter is not required, but you’d be foolish not to write one, because the cover letter is where you can point out how well your qualifications line up with the “skills and abilities” section of the job description, which directly affects how well you score on the matrix. If you’re qualified and you write a strong cover letter, you greatly increase your chances of getting an interview. Use the cover letter to explain how your experience in peripherally related areas makes you a stronger applicant, and explain any noticeable gaps in your employment history. Don’t ramble in the letter, and do strike a balance between confidence and humility. Don’t address your cover letter to “Dear Sir.” That really irritates the women on the search committee.
We like resumes and cover letters that make it easy for us to score your application, so be crystal clear about how your experience matches what we’re looking for. But don’t load up your letter and resume with buzz words if you can’t back up the lingo. If you’re bluffing, we’ll catch on soon enough.
Your resume can also sink you. Remove references to extinct programming languages and defunct applications that make you look dated. If the last version of Windows you’re familiar with is ’95, you’re done.
We do a lot of design work here. That means more than half the staff are Mac users, and many of us use PCs too. If your resume is dripping with contempt for Apple products, or if you are a Mac fanboy who hates Windows, we don’t want you. You need to be able to work with all kinds of people and all kinds of tools. If you make a clever joke about Google being more evil than they used to be, we won’t argue with you, but if you choose to snark, do it very carefully when applying for a job. You don’t know whose buttons you might be pushing.
We’re looking for experienced people, not newbies, so extensive previous employment is expected. That means it’s okay, even preferable, to send us a two-page resume, but fill the space wisely, with details that clearly illustrate how you meet the requirements of our job. You don’t have to be a master of every single bullet point in the job posting, but you’d better be pretty good at the majority of them. Don’t waste resume space on pointless objective statements. A generic objective is inane, and one that says your objective is to get hired for the job you’re applying for falls into the “Duh” category.
Don’t do this
Proofread your letter and resume, and have someone else look them over for you. Embarrassing typos suggest to us that you’re not attentive to detail.
If there’s anything odd on your resume, someone on the committee will notice. For example, if none of your references is from a past supervisor, we will wonder why. If you didn’t explain gaps in your employment history, we will wonder whether you’re trying to hide a job that didn’t go well. That alone might not rule you out, but if you get an interview, we’re going to ask about it. If your work history consists of very short stints with different companies, we will wonder whether you get along well with others. The committee will be looking for a pattern of relevant work experience and a progression of responsibility. We will Google you.
Photo by Andres Rueda on Flickr
Technical proficiency is required
If your technology prowess is on the level of successfully scanning your ramen noodles in the self-service line at the grocery store, you are not the person we seek. That doesn’t mean you need mad skillz on the order of having written your own Linux compiler when you were knee-high to C-3PO, and you don’t need to have developed a custom LMS that runs on your cell phone (although we’ll give you props if you have). But you do need to understand computing and the web in a hands-on way.
Being an uber geek isn’t enough
Sure, it’s cool if you know and love all gadgetry, and your resume is all alphabet soup (HTML, CSS, LMS, ADA, CS6, W3C, etc.), but if you can’t carry on an intelligent, unintimidating conversation with nontechnical people, and you don’t understand the culture and practices of higher education, you’re not the right one for us. You’ll be working directly with faculty, and the quickest way to turn them off is to start spouting technical jargon. Knowledge of teaching and learning is even more important than technical proficiency. The best applicants are those who know how and when—and when NOT— to apply technology in education. You’ve got to be able to teach faculty how to use software and hardware that they might be very vocally opposed to using, and you’ve got to do it with kindness and a smile. We want confidence and diplomacy, not arrogance, and we want people who thrive on patiently teaching and helping others.
Apply promptly and do it right
Our current job opening was posted without a closing date. However, as soon as the chair of the search committee thinks we have enough promising-looking applications, we’ll close the job posting with three days’ notice. If you’re interested in the position, don’t dawdle about applying. When you apply, follow the instructions on the Human Resources web site. You MUST fill out the application using HR’s system, even though it is tedious. Don’t email your resume directly to the department.
Don’t be a pest and do be patient
We’re not opposed to the occasional polite, short inquiry—preferably by email—about some aspect of the job. But don’t bug us with daily or weekly emails or phone calls about when we’re going to interview you or tell you what is going on. Hiring at a university is a SLOW process. It will be many weeks before you hear something from us.
The least qualified applicants—those who don’t meet the minimum qualifications—will usually get a “Dear John” letter via email sooner than the other applicants because they get weeded out almost immediately after the committee starts reviewing applications. But that could still be two months or more after the job opening was first posted.
Once the matrix scoring is completed and the committee convenes to discuss the highest-scoring applications, which in itself can take weeks because of scheduling conflicts, we will invite the most promising applicants for an interview.
The applicants in the middle of the pack have to wait the longest before hearing something. We hold off on notifying them because we might eventually invite them for an interview if the highest-scoring applicants don’t pan out. Usually, though, the also-rans get their Dear John email only after we’ve made a job offer to another applicant, and that person has accepted the position.
We sometimes do the initial interviews in person, sometimes on the phone, sometimes by videoconference. If you can interview in person, do so; you will be better able to read the people in the room and adjust your responses accordingly. Second interviews are usually in person and typically are reserved for only the top one, two, or (rarely) three applicants. Again, that can take several weeks.
There are pros and cons to being either the first or last interviewee. If you’re first and you are excellent, you set a high bar for the remaining applicants, but your stellar performance might fade from the committee’s memory by the time of the last interview. If you’re last, you can leave a positive impression on the committee, but by then the committee might be so weary of the hiring process that you practically have to tap dance to get their attention.
Before the interview, do your research. That means digging through our web site (yes, we know it needs work, but we’ve been busy and short-handed), following us on Twitter, finding us on Facebook, reading our blog, etc. That will answer a lot of questions you might have.
On interview day, show up on time. Dress appropriately. We’re not a suit-and-tie kind of department, but holey jeans and a funny-but-NSFW t-shirt are not appropriate choices for an interview. Dress as if you respect us. You can wear your purple Crocs after we hire you. For an interview, we suggest “business casual,” but we won’t penalize you for going fancier. Skip the tux or ball gown, though.
The committee chair will tell you what to bring to the interview. In advance of your interview we’ll probably ask you to send us links to online examples of your work. We might ask you to prepare a short training session or some kind of demo on a topic of your choice.
Have some good questions to ask us, but be sure they aren’t questions you could’ve answered yourself if you’d done your research. A candidate who interviews us will earn our respect. Just as we need to decide whether you’re the right fit for us, you need to figure out whether our job fits your talents and whether you can embrace our quirks and foibles.
Show enthusiasm. If you think the job really is a good fit, make us believe you want the job. Not just a job, but our job. And even if you are thinking it, try not to tell the interviewers that what you really want is one of their jobs. That doesn’t go over well. Nor does arguing with the committee or correcting their grammar or belligerently challenging the accuracy of something said. (Yes, past applicants have exhibited all of these behaviors during interviews.)
We know you’re nervous when you’re being grilled by several people who can decide your employment fate, but try to relax and let your sense of humor come through. Unless you like puns. We’ve got one of those already.
The salary is what it is
If we post a single figure for the salary, it means that’s either all we’ve got the budget for, or that figure represents internal salary equity, and there’s no negotiating room. If we post a salary range in the job description, and you can convince us you’re extremely well suited for the job, we will consider hiring at the high end of the range. Salaries at NAU are often below average.
The thank-you note
We appreciate thank-you notes, but we’re not gonna complain to your mom if you don’t write one. A thank-you note is an excellent way to send the committee any follow-up information you promised during the interview. We like emailed thank-you notes better than snail mail. We don’t like thank-you phone calls.
If your employment history is in a sector other than higher education, brace yourself for culture shock. People here are free-thinking, outspoken, informal, and nonhierarchically organized, but universities are also steeped in tradition, rife with bureaucracy, and slow to change. Practices that would be unthinkable or trivial in the corporate world can be entrenched or strangely significant here.
Internal, local, and foreign applicants
We sometimes get asked if our job openings are just for show because we already have an internal candidate in mind. The answer is no. If we think we have sufficiently qualified candidates within the department, we post positions as being open only to internal applicants. If the positions are posted as open recruitments, we really do want external applications, but of course we will also consider well-qualified candidates who apply from within NAU, and internal candidates can definitely have an advantage. If you are already an NAU employee, you will almost certainly be more familiar with many of the processes and tools used here, and you probably have already passed the university-required background check. If the committee wants someone who can get up to speed especially quickly, those factors can help, but they’re no guarantee. Being an internal candidate can work against you if the committee thinks an external perspective is especially valuable for the position or if you’ve received several negative performance appraisals. We do check those.
If you already live in Flagstaff, we know you won’t be scared off by the climate, the high cost of living here, or the need to buy or sell a house in a tough market. But we have hired many staff members from distant locations. We do generally want people who can work in our offices on the Flagstaff campus, as opposed to full-time telecommuting.
If you are not a U.S. citizen, and you don’t already have a green card, it is theoretically possible that you can get hired, but you must procure an H1-B visa, which means the committee has to write a justification stating that we were unable to find a suitably qualified candidate who is a citizen. In the current job market, that’s not likely. If you’ve got a green card already, you’re welcome to apply.
What we really want
Overall, we want the person who has the best mix of skills and experience, as well as a great, collegial personality to fit into the department and to work successfully with our clientele. If you meet those criteria, you improve your odds of getting hired.
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